Hartford's Webster Theatre, State's Biggest Rock Club, Sold To MassConcerts
ERIC R. DANTON
March 18, 2009
More than 70 years of family ownership has ended with the sale of the Webster Theatre in Hartford to a Massachusetts concert promoter.
Justine Robertson, whose family built the Barry Square movie house in 1937, has sold the venue for an undisclosed price to John Peters, who takes control of the 1,250-capacity rock club, the largest in Connecticut. The purchase price was not disclosed.
"It's a very stressful business, and it's time for me to go back to being a wife, a mother and a grandmother," Robertson said Tuesday. "I loved the business, but it seemed to me like it was the time to do it."
Robertson first approached Peters, owner of Worcester-based MassConcerts, about buying the Webster late last year. His company agreed to the sale before taking over booking for the club in late January.
"We're really excited to have the Webster," Peters said. "It's a good club, it's been there for a while and the list of acts that have played there is a mile long."
Peters said he's planning no major changes to the venue, including ticket prices.
"We're basically taking over a fully functioning and profitable business that's up and going, so there's no reason to make changes for the sake of changes," he said.
The Webster operated as a first-run movie theater for nearly 40 years, before intermittent stints in the '70s and '80s as a theater for family, foreign and, eventually, pornographic movies.
"The Webster was the premiere movie theater in Hartford," Robertson said. "It was the first air-conditioned movie theater. It was done in an art deco style. When I'd walk in there, my Aunt Bea would be in the box office, my father would be running around, we could order anything we wanted, Eskimo Pies, or whatever."
Robertson and her father, Albert H. Shulman, reopened the venue as a live music hall in 1996, and it has hosted hundreds of concerts since, from Kid Rock to No Doubt, Jay-Z to Gillian Welch, along with shows by The Strokes, the Flaming Lips, Dashboard Confessional, Kings of Leon and Queens of the Stone Age.
Shulman died in 2003, and Robertson bought out her siblings.
Tragedy struck the club last year when booker Ben Wu disappeared while on the island of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands to attend the wedding of Robertson's daughter, Stephanie. Wu is presumed to have drowned.
Robertson, who had in the past fielded inquiries about selling the theater, said the incident helped her decide to make a deal with the right person. She chose Peters.
"He is the right person for the Webster and the right person for Hartford," Robertson said.
Peters, 46, founded MassConcerts in 1994 while booking Pearl Street in Northampton, Mass., which he did for eight years in the '90s.
His first MassConcerts booking was the Dave Matthews Band and Big Head Todd & the Monsters at Smith College in 1995. Peters also brought the Warped Tour to New England during its inaugural year in 1995 and has exclusively managed the Palladium in Worcester since 2001. MassConcerts now promotes about 200 shows a year in venues all over New England.
"At this point, I think we're pretty well established as the second biggest promoter in the Northeast, aside from Live Nation," Peters said. Live Nation, a national conglomerate, runs the Meadows Music Theater in Hartford and Chevrolet Theatre in Wallingford, and it books Mohegan Sun Arena.
Taking over the Webster will allow MassConcerts to play a greater role in the Connecticut music scene, Peters said, by forging relationships with club-size bands and finding larger venues to accommodate them as they grow.
"We're looking forward to getting back into the Hartford market, both in the club and outside of the club," Peters said. "If you're there, developing acts from the ground up, you have a relationship with them, the act, the manager, all the way through."
That's good news for the local music scene, said Jonny Skonieczny, on-air promotions manager for WCCC-FM (106.9), which is a frequent sponsor of shows at the Webster.
"We've done some work with MassConcerts in the past, and they've always been committed to bringing in tours that WCCC would support," Skonieczny said. "So from that end, it's good" for Hartford.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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